In the final days before his infantry platoon entered Gaza last January against Hamas, "M." and his reservist buddies were approached by a representative of the military rabbinate. Would they be interested in a chat with a military clergyman during a break in training?
With no objections, they were introduced to a "Rabbi Chen," dressed in civilian clothes and red-bearded, who told the soldiers that "holiness of the people of Israel" would keep them safe.
The chat marked a more concerted effort by chief rabbi Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki and the military rabbinate – traditionally simply a provider of such services as kosher food – to reach the hearts and minds of soldiers. But what disturbed M., who requested anonymity for fear of a court martial, was what he saw as a violation of the army's code of ethics and ideological agnosticism.
Beyond charges of misconduct and war crimes, Israel's recent war in Gaza against Hamas fanned accusations that Mr. Rontzki is trying to remake the soldiers in his own hard-line religious nationalist image. At stake, critics warn, is the possible politicization of a military built as a people's army above the political fray.
"All these activities of the chief rabbi totally contradict the norms and morals of our army. We were raised on a humanistic army," says Ran Cohen, a former parliamentarian from the secular left-wing party, Meretz. "The minute our soldier will be educated as an antihumanistic soldier, it will destroy his moral resolve. That is why it is dangerous, because it can change the character of the army."
Beyond love of country, the core values of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) stress human dignity, life, and purity of arms – concepts meant to restrain force against noncombatants as well as proportionality.
But Chen said that "we should remember that this war is not just a regular war. It's the war of the children of light against the children of darkness.... My first interpretation was that we are fighting a messianic war," says M., a reserve combat medic who hails from an Orthodox Jewish community in a West Bank settlement. "For me, that completely contradicts the codes of war I learned as a young soldier. Those ideals were dear to me."
Pamphlet urged soldiers to show no mercy to 'cruel'
Soon after the war, the liberal Haaretz newspaper published excerpts from a pamphlet available in military synagogues that featured quotes from rabbinical scholars who argued that Palestinians were tantamount to foreigners and that soldiers should show no mercy to "the cruel."
The pamphlet was printed by the rabbinate's department for "Jewish awareness," a new unit set up by Rontzki to help with outreach.
To be sure, Israel is not the only country where military chaplains discuss battlefield morals and the justification of war. In the United Kingdom, military clergy lead discussions about war crimes and international conventions on war, says Tel Aviv University professor Asa Kasher, author of "The IDF Spirit," a code of military ethics.
"Talking to the troops about the meaning of the war is a necessity," he says. "Meaning must be given."
Discussions of war ethics and courage can be framed in a humanist or a religious discussion, Mr. Kasher says. But the anecdotes about the rabbinate's messages appear to undermine the IDF's political neutrality as well as its effort to avoid harm to noncombatants, he says. "Talking to them about who owns what parts of the Land of Israel ... is way beyond the limits."
The Israeli army declined a request for an interview with Rontzki or any other representative of the chief rabbinate. Army spokesman Elie Isaacson said the pamphlet and the motivational "chat" are viewed by the military as an "isolated" occurrence.
"Values are intrinsic to the way the Israeli army operates. They are ... such a large part of the way you're trained. The military rabbinate is such a small unit. Anything that they put out that would contradict the army line can't compete with what's been drilled in from Day 1," says Mr. Isaacson.
Increase in religious nationalists
But in the past two decades, the face of the army's combat corps has changed. Nationalist religious conscripts have replaced soldiers from secular farming kibbutzim, and have risen to be mid-level officers. A handful have become generals. The more observant core might give a military chaplain more of an audience.
Hailing from Itamar, one of the more ideologically charged Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Rontski – also a former commando – was reportedly appointed to defuse a crisis of confidence between the army and national religious right after the 2005 evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements.
Religious settlers felt betrayed as the military carried out what they saw as an illegal policy; youths debated whether to enlist.
Kasher said speculation about political appointments harms the army: "Ideally, I as a soldier, don't know where my commander lives and what his political views are," he says. "Once ... there is a suspicion that his commands stem from his political position, that's the end of discipline.... That's the end of being able to function as a combat unit."
Chief rabbi ordered monthly Torah discussions
Regardless of questions surrounding the appointment, Rontzki sought a proactive role, bringing the rabbinate to soldiers instead of waiting to provide ritual needs. He told an Israeli news outlet that he had ordered military rabbis to "ensure that every base and every platoon will have a discussion on [the] Torah at least once a month."
Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, who lost to Rontzki in heading the military rabbinate, gives him high marks. "He sees himself as part of the spiritual leadership of the army," he says. "He's speaking to soldiers and trying to improve their motivation and morality. He spends the shabes [Sabbath] in the army. He's changed the status of rabbis in the army."
But Rabbi Sherlow faults Rontzki for not anticipating the political fallout from spreading his spiritual beliefs. Sherlow said that for Rontzki, issues like territorial compromise are, foremost, spiritual questions.
"Not withdrawing from territories for him is not a political issue but a spiritual issue," Sherlow says of Rontzki, and that the rabbi feels "there's no problem to disseminate that [spiritual issue] in the army."